All it takes is 3 chords and a dream!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tommy Shaw - The Great Divide

Tommy Shaw – The Great Divide
2011, Pazzo Music/Fontana
Tommy Shaw is something of a rock n roll icon.   As one of the principal songwriters and vocalists for rock group Styx since 1976, Shaw (and the band) has cut a career path worthy of inclusion in the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame.  Shaw has spent his share of time on other projects over the years, cutting four solo albums, two albums with Damn Yankees (Ted Nugent, Jack Blades) and three as part of Shaw/Blades.  Shaw has also appeared on a number of tributes and collections over time.  With a tenor voice that’s instantly recognizable, it’s no surprise that some Shaw’s songs (“Fooling Yourself”, “Renegade”, “Too Much Time On My Hands”, and “High Enough”) continue to be staples on classic rock radio.  Shaw’s latest album takes him down a new road.  Working with some of the finest bluegrass session players around, and with guest appearances by Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss and Brad Davis, Shaw’s The Great Divide is an absolute delight.
The Great Divide opens with “The Next Right Thing”, a wonderful blend of pop/rock songwriting and bluegrass style.  You could easily hear this tune appearing on a Shaw/Blades album or even as a rock number by Styx, but the bluegrass sound seems to fit perfectly.  The picking here is incredible; the backing band the real deal.  Yoakam sits in on backing vocals, adding his sound to a complex arrangement full of movement and zest.  Shaw is in fine voice here.  “Back In Your Kitchen” explores love as expressed through the culinary art.  Shaw’s songwriting is sharp and full of good humor, with a light feel that’s sweet and enjoyable.  The instrumentation here is deliriously good, and the vocal line is flawless.  “Sawmill” almost sounds like it could be Shaw playing with Union Station, matching the latter stylistically in a catchy, old-school country sound.
“The Great Divide” is sweet and melancholy; full of great hope and love.  Shaw manages to capture a bit of the high lonesome sound here at times in a ballad with a modern feel.  Alison Krauss adds her sweet voice on backing vocals.  “Shadows In The Moonlight” is a hauntingly tragic love story told in song.  Shaw manages an exquisite arrangement full of dark beauty.  “Get On The One” is a high energy turn about grabbing onto your dream and following it to fruition.  This is a theme that Shaw has revisited throughout the years in his songwriting, but remains fresh in an allegory of trains and contemporary bluegrass styling.  “Umpteen Miles” finds Shaw trying to sound like an Appalachian back-porch singer on the first verse.  It works to a degree, but the sound is much better when he graduates to his higher range for the chorus.  The story-song is brilliantly written and told; however, exploring the life of someone irrevocably tied to the land he grew up on. 
“Cavalry” is a sweet little love song built around traditional instrumentation and a wonderfully fresh pop sensibility.  “Afraid To Love” is pure Tommy Shaw; a pure pop ballad with bluegrass instrumentation.  “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” is a talk/sing number about Harry Truman’s musical career and how he stumbled into the presidency, suddenly communing with the likes of Stalin and Churchill.  It’s an entertaining turn; a nice change of pace.  Shaw closes out with “I’ll Be Comin’ Home”, an Americana/rock number done up in bluegrass instrumentation.  This is great songwriting, pure and simple, and Shaw’s iconic voice has never been better.  It’s the perfect close to a near-perfect album.
Tommy Shaw takes a surprising and pleasing turn with The Great Divide.  While it’s not at all surprising for a rock artist to suddenly turn to more traditional musical styles as their career progresses, it’s unusual to make the transition so well.  The Great Divide deftly blends traditional bluegrass sound and modern songwriting to create what should turn out to be one of the best bluegrass albums of 2011.  Don’t be entirely surprised if Shaw gets serious consideration for at least a GRAMMY nomination this time around.
Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Tommy Shaw and The Great Divide at  The Great Divide is available from on CD, Vinyl and as a Download.  The album is also available from iTunes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Epigene – A Wall Street Odyssey

Epigene – A Wall Street Odyssey
2011, Amammi Music
Upstate New York rockers Epigene have made a name for themselves over the past decade by writing outside of the box rock n roll songs.  Epigene’s latest work, A Wall Street Odyssey, may be their most ambitious work to date.  Primary songwriter Sean Bigler attempts to capture the fall and rebirth of Wall Street and her denizens over the past few years in an art-rock concept album with pretentions to being a rock musical. 
A Wall Street Odyssey follows the life and times of the fictional Yossarian, an investment banker living the high life on Wall Street who comes to a crisis of conscience through the crash of 2008.  Yossarian moves out of the city and finds a life he never dreamed of, and then returns as an advocate for less money, ala Jerry Maguire.  The album is steeped in rock influences including The Who, The Kinks, Green Day and even a touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber (from his rock musical phase in the 1970’s).  All Wall Street Odyssey starts strong on “Looks Like I Made It”, which sounds like the Beatles jamming alternately with Rick Wakeman and Dennis DeYoung on keyboards.  It’s a great opener for an album or a musical, with all of the energy and urgency you might expect.    Big scale pop and electro rock are the name of the game on “Money Master” and “The Catch 22”, showing the big sale and the beginning of the downward spiral.  “Take My Head Off” is the beginning of the downfall, both for Yossarian and for the album as a whole.  The struggle to overcome the cognitive dissonance of a life lived in essential conflict is reflected in the mild dissonance of the angular composition.
Unfortunately, things go quickly downhill from there.  Yossarian’s breakdown is reflected by a breakdown in cohesion of the songwriting that isn’t recovers until ¾ of the way through the 25-track album.  In the meantime it’s a self-referential bland pop experience that runs the gamut of 1970’s music, from AM radio easy listening music to smarmy pop.  Interestingly enough, it’s when Yossarian returns to Wall Street to see the scene of his crimes that the energy and panache returns.  “Stranger In A Strange Land” may remind listeners of 1980’s rockers Men At Work in sonic style.  The album gets preachy on “Colonization & Globalization” and stays there for much of the rest of the way.
A Wall Street Odyssey starts with tremendous potential, but quickly fizzles into a narcissistic political diorama of bland musical compositions and pretentious political motivations.  Epigene does show flashes of great songwriting on A Wall Street Odyssey, but this is an example where the intended message hijacks the music.  If you’re into overly preachy, mellow-art rock that dances into the edges of psychedelia from time to time, then A Wall Street Odyssey will be right up your alley.
Rating: 2 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Epigene at or  Keep checking Epigene's sites for availability.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jill Goldberg – Girl, Polite

Jill Goldberg – Girl, Polite
2011, Louar Music

Boston-based singer/songwriter Jill Goldberg returns on April 1, 2011 with a new six-song EP, Girl, Polite.  The talented and savvy artist provides her own perspectives on life, love and loss in solid, piano-drive pop/rock tunes full of heart.  Opening with “Not Worth It”, Goldberg crafts intriguingly radio-friendly pop without sounding saccharine or trite.  Goldberg’s deep alto voice is a pleasure to listen to, and she comes off as something of a cross between Laura Branigan and Paula Cole.  “Girl, Polite” explores the struggles of someone brought up to be a ‘good girl’ but feeling rage and anger at the actions of others.  What is occurring beneath the placid depths of polite conversation may surprise you, but should be strange to almost no one.  All of this is covered under a smooth-pop sound that is delightful.
“Where Did You Go” is a sorrowful pop ballad, born of heartbreak and loss.  There is a faux waltz underpinning the arrangement in 6/4 time, and Goldberg’s voice gives more than a few ‘WOW’ moments here.  “Five Steps” and “I’m Always Right” are bland filler, but Goldberg recovers nicely with “My Heaven”; a love song to one who may never hear it.  Goldberg writes here for herself, trying to survive loss and loneliness.  Goldberg is absolutely amazing on the chorus; her voice rich and deep and full of an abject beauty.
Girl, Polite hits a lot of right notes, and Jill Goldberg’s voice is in fine form throughout.  There are two filler tunes here, but even in her more mundane moments Goldberg is intriguing.  It’s a shame Goldberg will only be promoting this EP on the East Coast; she shows enough talent and panache to extend her reach well beyond the I-95 corridor.
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Jill Goldberg at or, Polite drops April 1, 2011, and will be available from as a CD or Download.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grateful Dead – Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2 – April Fools '88

Grateful Dead – Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2 – April Fools '88
2011, Rhino Records/ and Rhino Records continue their brilliant Road Trips series in 2011.  The first release, a 3-disc offering entitled April Fools '88, features live performances from Brendan Byrne Arena (then known as The Meadowlands) from March 31st and April 1st of 1988.  Generally renowned for their concert performances, the recordings from these two nights are like capturing lightning in a bottle, with rare performances and a stage energy from the band that is simply exceptional.
Some very rare tracks can be found in the middle of the show, including “To Lay Me Down” and Bob Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man”.   The sets offered here are full of classic Dead tunes as well,  but the real prize is the energy and flow of the two shows; especially the April 1st performance.  The Grateful Dead were in the fullness of their musical powers in 1988, and Jerry Garcia was a new man after his medical trouble two years previous.  The result was a stunning live show, and a brilliantly produced and mastered archival record in the form of April Fools '88.  If you’re a Dead fan, this is a must have, and if you’re looking for a good introduction to the Grateful Dead, you couldn’t choose better.
Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Grateful Dead at, where you can order a copy of Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2 – April Fools '88.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
2011, Warner Bros.
It’s difficult to stay relevant as a rock n roller for a decade.  When you’ve been at it for over 30 years like the men in R.E.M., it’s next to impossible.  A rock star’s sixth decade of life generally sees a decline in the vigor that fuels earlier songwriting, followed by a string of greatest hits collections and live albums of recycled material from their younger days.  R.E.M. will not go quietly into the night, and prove it in full measure on their latest album, Collapse Into Now. 
Opening with the urgent, almost crunch guitar work of Peter Buck on “Discoverer”, R.E.M. offers up what may be their edgiest songwriting in 2o years.  “Discoverer” is catchy and impertinent musically with a distinctive pop sensibility at its core.  Stipe howls and wails in classic style, vocally abusing the song into jittery life.  “All The Best” has a similar feel, with a driven and edgy energy you simply cannot ignore, and serves as a reminder that for “old men of rock n roll”, the band still knows more about rocking a house than many of the kids that have followed in their footsteps.  “Uberlin” has more of a classic R.E.M. sound, building on a clean, simple arrangement with solid vocal harmonies.  Stipe sings sans the whiney vocal quality that made him the object of some unfortunate, yet humorous, caricatures in the past.
“Oh My Heart” is a folk/rock ballad about getting back to your roots, but finding all the things that have changed since you moved on.  This tune has a southern-European flavor, with a gorgeous counter-melody in the accordion.    “It Happened Today” is a catchy, acoustic-driven pop parable that offers more of the feeling side of the event than the story.  This is inspired songwriting, sticking in your head even if you’re never really certain of the genesis.  “Every Day Is Yours To Win” is an intriguingly melancholy song of hope; low key but with an insistent energy that won’t let you go.  The simple arrangement works well in context with the emotional and stylistic incongruities of the song.
“Mine Smell Like Honey” is pure fun, an energetic, crunchy-guitar driven tune that gets stuck in your noggin and stays there.  “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is built on the angst of not knowing who you are or where you are going.  There’s a youthful energy to this song that is surprising, and the theme will resonate with the 20-something crowd.  It’s compelling songwriting with a delightfully crunchy sound.  “That Someone Is You” is a driven rock with a garage/pop sensibility that is by far the catchiest tune on the disc.  Don’t be surprised if this is a single at some point, and don’t be surprised if it returns R.E.M. to Billboard’s Hot-100 in full force.  “Me, Marlon Brand, Marlon Brand And I” is a dreamy return to the late-80’s and early 90’s pop-R.E.M. sound, but retains the vibrancy of the band’s most recent works.  R.E.M. close things down with “Blue”, a sort of conglomeration of ideas both musical and cerebrate.  Stipe’s voice-over blends into a surprise vocal appearance by Patti Smith, but this seems like more of an afterthought than a cogent addition to the album.
In spite of wandering off the track at the end, R.E.M.’s Collapse Into Now may be their most vital work since the late 1980’s.  That’s saying something that has made consistency and growth a staple of their career.  Collapse Into Now builds on all the learning and growth that R.E.M. have acquired over three decades of performing and touring together, but re-captures the vigor of youth in surprising measure.  R.E.M. have been critical darlings for most of their careers, and so it won’t be surprising if Collapse Into Now ends up on a host of year-end “best of” lists, but any such inclusions will be very much earned this time around.
Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about R.E.M. at or Into Now is available from as a CD, on Vinyl, and as a Download.  iTunes offers the album digitally in standard and Deluxe editions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Art Of Dying - Vices And Virtues

Art Of Dying – Vices And Virtues
2011, Intoxication Records
Vancouver rockers Art Of Dying released their debut album, Vices And Virtues, this week on Disturbed’s Intoxication Records (Reprise).  The high energy rockers enter the realm of mainstream, radio-ready hard rock with a bang and a whisper on one of the most highly polished rock albums of the year, so far.  Playing in the realm of modern rock with a retro nod to 1980’s hair bands, Art Of Dying has the sound and intensity to appeal to rock fans of different generations, offering enough substance in their songwriting to last longer than a four-minute blip on modern rock radio, but enough pop sensibility in their sound to keep the phone lines lighting up with requests.  “Die Trying” is a catchy instant radio hit built on dark, minor key vocal harmonies and an edgy sound.  “Get Through This” is built on a killer hook and serious pop sensibilities, and has an anthemic quality for a troubled world that could really catch on.  While the lyrics here are a bit simplistic at times, the universality of the song will have a lot of appeal. 
“Sorry” offers serious vocal harmonies that work their way up into the arena-rock vocal triads of 1980’s stalwarts such as Styx and Journey at times.  This may be the biggest potential hit on the album, and don’t be surprised if it becomes a staple this summer.  “I Will Be There” is a loving ballad seemingly from parent to child, and shows real heart that will appeal well to adult-contemporary radio.  It’s a classic power ballad with a surprisingly heartfelt twist.  “Best I Can” also gets Art Of Dying points for balladry, while “Straight Across My Mind” gets things moving in the active rock realm again.     While there is definitely some filler here designed to flesh Vices And Virtues out into a full-length album, there is more than enough solid material to make the effort worthwhile.  In an era when many albums are built around one solid, marketable song, it’s refreshing to find a hard rock band who writes with a depth and breadth well beyond the norm.  One might walk away with the impression that Art Of Dying is a good band on the cusp of being a great one.  That’s okay.  Vices And Virtues is good enough that a lot of people will want to see what Art Of Dying does next.
Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)
 Learn more about Art Of Dying at or And Virtues is available from as a CD or Download.  The album is also available via iTunes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jai - Instrumental Storyteller Vol. 1: Discovering The Peace

Jai - Instrumental Storyteller Vol. 1: Discovering The Peace
2010, Jai Audio

There is the man, and then there is the enigma.  Walking down the streets of Mount Vernon, Washington, Joe Wilbur looks like any mere mortal.  But when Wilbur steps into the studio or on-stage he is transformed into the artist known as Jai.  Spinning musical webs in a guitar-driving alternative instrumental universe, Jai recalls mental images of artists such as Mark Knopfler, Sigur Ros, Mogwai and David Gilmour.  Starting with home demos back in 2003, Jai continued to develop his craft and cemented his passions in academia with a degree from the Musicians Institute in 2008.  In 2010, Jai threw his hat into the musical ring for good with the release of his debut album, Instrumental Storyteller Vol. 1: Discovering The Peace.
Instrumental Storyteller Vol. 1 opens with the ambience of a baby crying and the soothing voice of a mother while she winds up a music box.  The music box turns into Jai’s synth.  “Lullaby”, as the track is called, is a slow, halting melody that progressively slows in a trite bit of theatrics.  “Lady Of The Night And Dancer” features a sweet melody in a tightly constricted and cyclical arrangement.  This is pleasant background music ala Kenny G.  Acoustic guitar takes the lead voice over a bed of synth, bass and percussion.  Jai perhaps makes things a bit too busy at the end, with too many instrumental voices competing unnecessarily for attention.  “Don’t Reach For Those Pills” features a heavily layered sound with an ethereal feel.  It’s a complex and enjoyable exploration that blends synth and electric guitar nicely. 
“Stormcloud, Bring Rainbows” uses thunder and rain sounds as the background to a slowly moving progressing of synth and piano.  It’s an unimaginative nature-sounds CD style akin to the compilations previously sold by chains such as Brookstone.  “Pray” is dark and conflicted, starting out nicely with acoustic guitar but losing steam in an undirected wash of synth.  “Euphoria Pt. 1 – Release” has an interesting sense of energy and movement at the outset and explodes into a new age rock tune with vibrant guitar taking the lead in a lyric solo line.  While well written, the overall emotional feel of the piece is more the expectation of euphoria than the thing itself, and sounds like something Harold Faltermeyer may have written while he was writing the Top Gun score.  “Dream Of Love” has a similar sound but with a more ethereal air.
“Angelic Touch” is awash in guitar with a synth bed.  It’s a solid piece of incidental music but there’s no real grab for the listener.  “Euphoria Pt. 2 – Return” is closer to euphoria than part 1, but still too reserved for the title.  The song has a questioning aspect, missing the confidence or jubilance that euphoria would imply.  There’s perhaps a guarded happiness here, but the lack of technical inspiration or spirit leaves the listener a bit flat.  “Walk Of Remembrance” is bland, with vocalizations and the sounds o f children playing overdubbed in a seemingly cynical attempt to draw emotion where there is none.  On “At Peace”, Jai offers a slow, ambling melody against the backdrop of nature sounds.  Unfortunately it sounds like Jai is going through the motions at this point to fill out space on the album.  Jai closes with “Love Never Ends”, in a wash of synth with big chords and vocalizations.  The effect is pretty, but there’s no spark.
Jai shows some promise on Instrumental Storyteller Vol. 1: Discovering The Peace, creating a handful of compositions that are inspired and occasional even of film quality.  Unfortunately there’s an equal measure of banal and spirit-less compositions here as well.  At his best, Jai writes with a scope and depth that captures moments musically.  However Instrumental Storyteller Vol. 1: Discovering The Peace is an example of a great EP turned into a middling album by too much filler. 
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Jai at Storyteller Volume 1 - Discovering The Peace is available digitally from

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sutton Foster – An Evening With Sutton Foster – Live At The Café Carlyle

Sutton Foster – An Evening With Sutton Foster – Live At The Café Carlyle
2011, Ghostlight Records
Good actors can bend themselves to any role.  Great actors wrap a role around themselves like a second skin, becoming both themselves and the other.   For all of the acting classes and workshops one can take, this particular quality is not one that can be learned.  It’s a quality shared by some of the greatest names to grace the stages of the Great White Way:  Patti Lupone.  Bernadette Peters.  Angela Lansbury.  Kristin Chenoweth.  Sutton Foster. 
Sutton Foster made a name for herself as Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie, winning the 2002 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, as well as similar awards from Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and the Fred Astaire Award for best actress in a musical.  Foster has gone on to roles such as Jo March (Little Women – Tony, Outer Desk and Drama League nominations); Janet Van De Graaf (The Drowsy Chaperone – Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Circle nominations) and Princess Fiona (Shrek The Musical – 2009 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical).  On March 10, 2011, Foster began previews at The Roundabout Theatre for the Cole Porter classic musical Anything Goes.  As if she’s not busy enough, Foster also released her second album, An Evening With Sutton Foster – Live At The Café Carlyle, this week.
Live albums are always a risk.  Even in an era where genius and technology can make a rough performance sound great after the fact, an artist is totally exposed in a live performance, and particularly in the intimate setting of a cabaret show.  At the same time, the magic that occurs on stage is ever-so-difficult to transfer to an audio recording.  Yet it’s delightful to report that Sutton Foster pulls it all off with unabashed charm on An Evening With Sutton Foster.  Culling songs from her debut album Wish, as well as from her previous work on Broadway, Foster charms with a blend of songs and stories that will entertain you, touch your heart and make you laugh out loud.
The show opens with “I’m Beginning To See The Light”, a Duke Ellington number performed by Foster with the sole accompaniment of ukulele.  It’s a brilliant opening full of showgirl zeal but with an air authenticity that simply cannot be manufactured.  Foster has one of those voices that rings in your mind for ever after hearing it, and is personality plus on stage.  Foster strings together snippets of songs from roles she’s played in a medley of “Not For The Life Of Me” (Thoroughly Modern Millie), “NYC” (Annie) and “Astonishing” (Little Women).  As medleys go this one works better than most, the transitions almost seamless, even if “Not For The Life Of Me” was cut woefully short.  “Up On The Roof” is offered in a sweet and lyric interpretation that’s full of heart and a sense of reminiscence about her early years in New York City.
Foster’s cover of Christine Lavin’s “Air Conditioner” is perhaps even funnier than the original, owing a great deal to the charm and pizzazz of the singer, qualities that wash through your speakers and bathe the listener whole.  Foster changes paces nicely with “Warm All Over”, a sultry and sweet take on the Frank Loesser tune from Most Happy Fella.  Foster rips off the roof (and a boob pad) in “Show Off”, one of the signature numbers from The Drowsy Chaperone.  The roof lands several blocks away, as Foster cranks it up with a powerful, thousand-watt performance; while the boob pad hilariously lands on her brother, Hunter Foster.  The show goes on, but the moment is timeless and thankfully not excised from the recording.
“More To The Story” is a song that was cut from Shrek: The Musical before it came to New York, and you have to wonder why.  After hearing Foster’s performance here you won’t be able to imagine the show without it.  Foster’s performance is full of heart and beauty that moves beyond music into the sublime.  “My Heart Was Set On You” is an amazing tune – a heartbreaker about forbidden love that works out the way everyone expected all along.  An inexorable tragedy in song that finds the heroine still somewhat in love even from the other side of heartbreak.  This is a pure “WOW” moment.  The transition into “Down With Love” (Hooray For What!) is classic, with Foster offering a quirky/sweet performance that is perhaps the perfect spoiler to the heartbreak that preceded it.
Foster pulls off another “WOW” moment on Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunshine”, offering a lyric performance full of vulnerability and hope that are palpable.  For a performer who can belt with such aplomb to be able to pull off a number like this is stunning.  A small lottery conducted by Music Director Michael Rafter leads next to a roof-raising performance of “Defying Gravity” (Wicked).  Dare it be said that Foster pulls it off as if she, herself, originated the role.  Foster puts on the faux ingénue qualities of a classic movie moll for “Late Late Show”, before moving into a sweet and lyric version of John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders”.  Foster gives up the belt here for a light and airy sound that highlights the utter beauty of her voice.  “Anyone Can Whistle/Being Alive” and “”Come The Wild Wild Weather” are both sweet numbers that serve as a bit of a respite for the singer before building to the big finale.  Foster begins the end with The Beatles’ “Here, There And Everywhere”.  Accompanied by banjo alone, Sutton Foster creates one of those pure musical moments that are steeped in an esoteric and timeless beauty that’s about as impossible to describe as it is to create in the first place.  It’s moments like this that concert goers remember all their lives.  As if that weren’t enough, Foster goes over the moon with “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going)” from Dreamgirls.  If Foster blew the roof off earlier in the show, this number couldn’t have left a wall standing.
Sutton Foster is what is considered a triple threat on Broadway.  She sings, she dances and she acts.  But sometimes the term triple threat doesn’t even begin to explain what an actor can do.  Foster’s sense of showmanship combines with an utter authenticity that’s built on smarts, humor, a little bit of grit, and a healthy dose of southern charm and sophistication.  Add to that a voice that can lull you into the ether and then blow you away all in the same breath and you have a singular, rare talent who will be remembered for generations.  An Evening With Sutton Foster – Live At The Café Carlyle is a document and testament to talent, charm and grace to one of the leading ladies of the stage.  Sutton Foster shines bright.  An Evening With Sutton Foster – Live At The Café Carlyle can be nothing less than a Wildy’s World Certified Desert Island Disc.
Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Sutton Foster at or on FacebookAn Evening With Sutton Foster - Live At The Café Carlyle is available from as a  CD or DownloadThe album is also available from iTunes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Malea McGuinness - Close As Air

Malea McGuinness - Close As Air
2009, Malea Music

Malea McGuinness was born to sing.  Growing up on Long Island she was well within the siren call of Broadway and all of its promise.  McGuinness dreamed of making good on that promise from a young age, singing in the backyard out of ear shot of her grandparents.  Working her way through programs at Tanglewood, Oberlin Conservatory and Chautauqua Institution, McGuinness went on to study opera at the Manhattan School of Music.  Before long she’d landed a featured role in The King And I on Broadway.  McGuinness’ commercial work afforded her the opportunity to sojourn to Los Angeles and remake herself as a singer/songwriter.  Teaching herself guitar and gaining a reputation on the local club circuit, McGuinness has continued to build a fan base at a slow but unstoppable pace.  McGuinness’ latest album, Close As Air, is an apt introduction to her distinctive voice and songwriting skills.

Close As Air opens with "Spinning", a great bit of 1980's-style pop/rock that explores the craziness of a world in motion while looking for a purpose or higher call.  This is a great, high energy way to start an album.  "Time Will Show" shows off McGuinness' warm and sultry voice.  There's a rough edge here that's surprising, and it works very much to her benefit.  "Close As Air" has a distinctive acoustic pop/Americana feel that fits well with the theme of love negating all distance or obstacles between two people.  There's a happy and healthy approach to love respected here, based in a confidence that all will work out in the end. 

"Moving On" is an edgy pop/rock number that works to put the pain of a difficult parental relationship behind her.  There's a powerful dynamic here, as the song is written from a solid emotional platform based on an understanding of reality.  The song is compact musically, written within a short melodic range that makes the most of McGuinness' voice.  "Tonight" is written from the depths of love and devotion, and McGuiness gives it the classic treatment of a balladeer.  The piano-based number would fit well on a Manilow album, but McGuinness' earthy tone and almost bluesy approach gives it a deeper dimension than you might at first expect.  "Stars" is a 1970's or early 1980's pop ballad written for and about children who aren't given the best start in life.  McGuinness conveys love and respect for those whom society sometimes forgets, and points out the injustice and potential in each one.

"Birthday Song" is a country-style celebration of love and its ability to arrive in full force when utterly unexpected.  "Falling" is based on a theme of reassurance, but the arrangement borders on bland in the verses.  McGuinness pulls a mild save on the chorus, which plays to a catchy cadence, but this is, at best, a solid deep album track.  "No More" finds McGuinness venturing back into the low-key country/pop realm for a powerful anthem about standing up for herself with someone who hasn't given her the love and respect she feels she deserves.  This tune shows off McGuinness' voice in its best light.  Close As Air formally closes with "Memories", a relationship retrospective that longs for the old days while knowing they can never be again. For those who stick around after the last track, McGuinness has included a countrified version of "The Water Is Wide".  The arrangement on this is nice, although McGuinness' vocal line doesn't play entirely well at times. 

Malea McGuiness is a professional artist who understands her limits and works effectively within them.  McGuinness' voice, at its best, has wonderfully earthy warmth that can occasionally cross over into sultry territory.  While her range may be somewhat limited, McGuinness sings with enough intensity and personality that you may simply fail to notice what's not there.  The arrangements on Close As Air are solid and enjoyable to listen to, and the total effort on Close As Air is very much worth spending some time with. 

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Malea McGuinness at or As Air is available from as a CD or Download.  The album is also available from iTunes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

These Curious Thoughts - 2011 Demo

These Curious Thoughts - 2011 Demo
2011, These Curious Thoughts

These Curious thoughts are a band for the 21st century.  Lyricist Jamie Radford is based in London (UK) while vocalist/musician Sean Dunlop is based in the Motor City.  Radford sends his inspired brand of lyrics and ideas to Dunlop, who then composes songs around them.  Their unique songwriting style and their shared history as members of Shock Of The Cold have These Curious Thoughts thinking of bigger and better things for their music.  The band has created a demo for 2011 to help them seek out financial, industry and artist support.

These Curious Thoughts 2011 Demo opens with "The Colour Of Sound", an eclectic and angular bit of songwriting that sails the rift between dreamy psychedelia, alt- and classic rock n roll.  "I Am A Man" is a mildly catchy tune with a 1960's sound a touch of pop zeal.  The song is intriguing if a bit vague.  "Talks In Math" combines the lyricism of The Moody Blues with an urgent sensibility that seems ill-fitted but somehow works nonetheless.  This is among the most complex arrangements on the demo, and will have the musicians out there following along closely to see what These Curious Thoughts are doing beneath the surface.  "Collapse" is rumination on an unknown illness ala Ben Folds' "Narcolepsy".  The song is something of an enigma as it blends a smooth, ethereal sense with the rough nature of a garage recording.  "Sun Burns Holes" is somewhat bland, but sounds like something REM might have written quickly in-session if they'd come along two decades later.  These Curious Thoughts close with "The Truth Is Dead", with Dunlop showing off some of his best guitar work on the album.  Things get a bit too repetitive here, but These Curious Thoughts find a nice pop sound in the midst of concentric circles.

These Curious Thoughts aren't such an enigmatic act as they might have been considered even ten years ago, and their 2011 Demo shows promise, but there's still work to be done here.  Both members take part in the song craft, but there is an essential disconnect here that cannot be overcome by an internet connection.    Radford and Dunlop work well enough together, but lose the magic of truly creating together.  Consequently 2011 Demo shows flashes of what These Curious Thoughts might become, but for now they are young band with a lot to prove.  Their 2011 Demo answers a few questions, but there's still a lot to be discovered by and about These Curious Thoughts.

Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about These Curious Thoughts at or  These Curious Thoughts is planning two album releases later this year.  The Colour Of Sound is due on May 1, 2011, while Let's See What 2Morrow Brings is due on June 1, 2011.  Keep checking the band's websight for additional information.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Robert Henry – 12 Nocturnes And A Waltz

Robert Henry – 12 Nocturnes And A Waltz
2010, Muuz Records
Robert Henry makes the phrase “Award Winning pianist” almost passé.  A gold medal in no less than four international competitions, Henry is considered the complete package as a performer (technique, showmanship, style).  Robert Henry earned a Doctorate in Piano Performance from the University of Maryland, and in 2009 was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award.  He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2002, and is currently a Steinway International artist.  Henry also makes a point of engaging in social causes as well.  Henry coordinated the “$100,000 Hurricane Katrina Relief Tour”, raising $108,000 from concerts presented around the US, for which he received a Distinguished Service Award in 2006.  In 2010, Robert Henry released his debut album, 12 Nocturnes And A Waltz, featuring the works of Chopin, Grieg, Liszt, Stanchinsky, and Chet Atkins, among others. 
Henry opens with Chopin’s “Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Opus 27, No.2” in a gorgeous display of dynamics and emotion, underwritten by perfect technique.  Henry brings out elements of tension and sadness, and also a sense of expectation.  Respighi’s “Notturno” has a melancholy, dream-like aura.  Henry’s lyric style is poignant and full of beauty.  “Notturno” is among the prettiest performances on the album; sublime in the subtlety of Henry’s hands.  “Libersträume, Notturno No. 3” is powerful and full of life.  Henry brings Liszt’s opus to life, contrasting grand, theatrical moments with pianissimo passages that are gorgeous.  Henry plays this like he wrote it, as if the passages were born from his own heart and mind.
Grieg’s “Nocturne, Opus. 54, No. 4” is lovely, dark and a touch sad.  Henry brings out the lyric qualities of the piece in blue passages that are palpably emotive.  Henry breaks out in grand style in Chopin’s “Nocturne in B Major, Opus 62, No. 1”, displaying gorgeous piano runs.  Moving on to the powerful and vibrant second movement, Henry shakes out the cobwebs with powerful dynamics and a theatrical flair that perfectly matches Chopin’s original vision.  “Nocturne (Homage To John Field), Opus 33” is a well-crafted piano interpretation that is prone to fits of aural chaos.  The main theme is pretty, but Henry takes listeners along the path of Barber’s variable musings with a combined sense of reverence and glee.
Henry increases the voltage in Fauré’s “Nocturne In E-Flat Major, Opus 36”, a pretty and nuanced piece infused with a swelling sense of drama and cascading, dream-like movements.  Henry’s work is gorgeous and powerful, distinctive in its lyrical sense yet refined.  Henry sticks with Fauré for “Nocturne In B-Flat Major, Opus 37”, an equally pretty composition, yet more tame both in intent and energy.  Henry next tackles John Field’s “Nocturne No. 4 In A Major, H. 37”, displaying brilliance for interpretation and a rare sense of musicality.  Fields’ composition is a fluttery piece streaked with dark undertones.  Henry manages to bring out the worry lines in the music, subtly painting emotions between the lines.  Alexei Stanchinsky’s “Nocturne” is dark, rueful and sweet.  Henry takes the sad and longing reminiscence and makes it his own in a virtuoso performance full of palpable place and emotion.  Henry closes with his own arrangement of Chet Atkins’ “Waltz For The Lonely”.  Henry is both reverent to the original and creative in his transposition of one of Atkins’ finest works to piano. 
Robert Henry is a treasure; the sort of talent who comes along once or twice a generation.  While the awards and recognitions speak volumes, you have to hear Robert Henry play in order to truly get how good he is.  For what it’s worth, Twelve Nocturnes And A Waltz is definitive proof; this is the sort of recording that becomes more revered over time.  Henry’s technical skill combined with his sense of lyricism and personality allow him to create magic at the piano.  If you’re new to classical music, your collection should start here.  There may not be a brighter young light in classical music than Robert Henry.
Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5) 
Learn more about Robert Henry at Nocturnes And A Waltz is available as a CD only from

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gary Sellers - Soul Apparatus

Gary Sellers – Soul Apparatus
2010, Gary Sellers
Long Island singer/songwriter Gary Sellers immersed himself in the guitar at the age of 17, and soon was following legends of the local blues scene incessantly with a notebook in hand.  Sellers was jotting down song ideas in a notebook and learning everything he could from watching the best.  It wasn’t long before local icon Sam Taylor had taken sellers under his wing.  As a member of the Sam Taylor Band, Sellers played lead guitar and contributed backing vocals.  The “boy with the book” has stepped out on his own, and in 2010 released his sophomore album, Soul Apparatus.
Soul Apparatus opens with “Chewin’ Ice”, an innuendo-laden number that blends does of rock, soul and funk.  It’s a tongue-in-cheek bit of advice on how to spot which woman to take home from a bar.  It’s an entertaining number that displays impressive guitar and synth work.  “Living For The City” is written in a classic soul/rock style, but sounds a bit rote.  Sellers’ guitar work makes up for what is essentially a mundane bit of songwriting.  “Done Sold Everything” is a solid dose of rhythm & blues.  The transition here is slow, but the guitar work is stellar, and Sellers has a voice that embodies a gritty weariness that is perfect for the blues.
“Sideshow Blues” explores the trials and tribulations of being a working musician while the less talented trust fund babies take up all the big spots in entertainment.  It’s a great tune in a solid arrangement, and will hit home with any working musician who doesn’t have a mom or dad on a major label contract to push them along.  “Don’t Hurt No More” is a classic R&B style number ala Sam Cooke.  While Sellers has a distinctive voice that’s a pleasure to listen to, he’s not Cooke, and is a bit exposed here.  Nonetheless, it’s a solid effort and among the highlights on Soul Apparatus. “Slow And Steady” cautions listeners not to lose their heads in love.  The song is well-written, with a nice flow, and Seller’s guitar excursions are, as always, worth tuning in for. 
“Beer Drinking Woman” is a blues/rock number about the social and financial hazards of dating a woman who prefers beer.  It’s a fun number; a bit light on content but entertaining for what it is.  The arrangement is tight and the musicianship is solid.  “Let’s Straighten It Out” is out of character and doesn’t fit well here, but transitions quickly into “That Did It, Baby”.  The latter if a five-and-a-half minute jam that features some of the smoothest guitar work on the album.  It’s as if Carlos Santana himself immersed himself in the blues.  Soul Apparatus takes a bow with “Dark End Of The Street”, a solid tune with a nice, easy-going feel.  It’s a solid nightcap on a solid album.
Soul Apparatus finds Gary Sellers making deft use of his guitar skills while showing off a solid voice that perhaps isn’t best suited to the blues.   The album itself is a strong effort that doesn’t always quite live up to its own good intentions, but almost always delivers a solid performance.  While sellers shows the grit and sense of solitude in his vocals that bespeak of the blues, he just doesn’t have the charisma or power of a legend.  Even when he tries to tackle soul man Sam Cooke’s style, Sellers gets points for effort but falls shy on execution.  At the end of the day it’s a solid effort worth tuning in for, but Seller’s personality and passion haven’t quite come together yet.  He’s good enough that if he every makes that connection the results should be stellar.
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Gary Sellers at or Apparatus is available from as a CD or Download.  The album is also available digitally via iTunes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Eleven Dollar Life - Shatter The Silence [EP]

Eleven Dollar Life - Shatter The Silence [EP]2011, EDL Publications

Chicago's club scene might never be the same.  Eleven Dollar Life have become the mavens of Chi-town over the past few years, graduating from the small stages they haunted from inception in 2003 as 4 Orange to the largest venues in town.  With a dynamic and eclectic stage show and the electric personality of front man Bryan Pray, Eleven Dollar Life mixes a 1990's alt-rock sound with blazing pop sensibilities.  Eleven Dollar Life's latest EP, Shatter The Silence, captures the unbridled energy and charisma that the band brings to the stage on CD and download for the entire world to hear.

Opening with "Wisconsin", Eleven Dollar Life shows just how easy it is to combine big hooks, an acoustic arrangement and punk energy.  Pray rules the roost on the mic, as he waxes poetic about oversaturated populations and a lack of jobs.  This is by far one of the catchiest songs of social conscience you've ever heard.  "Zee" was written by a friend of band as a remembrance of his hard partying days on the rave scene.   There's a distinctive 1970's vibe here, fed by the virulently danceable disco beat.  "Suitcase" sounds finds Eleven Dollar Life sounding a bit like Jason Mraz.  It's a fun listen that will get stuck in your skull, but the emphasis here is definitely more on sound than coherence.  Eleven Dollar Life closes with "Relief", a document of the attempt to get in closer touch with yourself.  The fluffy, mostly-acoustic arrangement is appealing, but the song is symbolically less complex than it wishes to be, an allegory, of sorts, for the lyrical intent sewn into the music.

Eleven Dollar Life certainly has the "IT" factor.  Vocalist Brian Pray grabs your attention early on and holds it with a voice you can't quite pull yourself away from.  The musicianship here is top notch, and Shatter The Silence seems likely to build on an already burgeoning fan base for Eleven Dollar Life.  Right now Eleven Dollar Life is one lucky break away from the big time.  They may still be growing as artists, but they are ready for the spotlight any time it should happen their way.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Eleven Dollar Life at or  Eleven Dollar Life's Shatter The Silence [EP] is a promotional sampler for the full-length album of the same name due out shortly.  Keep checking Eleven Dollar Life's website for availability.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aleyson Scopel – Live In Concert

Aleyson Scopel – Live In Concert
2010, Aleyson Scopel
Aleyson Scopel is one of the brightest musical lights to come out of Brazil in recent memory.  A graduate of the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, Scopel has performed on five continents and one a host of awards and distinctions along the way.  In 2008, Scopel embarked on his first cross-country tour of Brazil, earning critical acclaim at each stop along the way.  2010 saw the release of Scopel’s debut album, Live In Concert, a collection of pieces written by Scarlatti, Mozart, Schumann and Jose Antonio Rezende de Almeida Prado.
Scopel opens with “Sonata in C# minor” (K. 247, L.256,P.297), a pensive, single-movement composition written by Domenico Scarlatti in 1757.  In spite of its thoughtful nature, Scopel infuses moments of wonder and beauty with the occasional wisp of mischievous glee.  Scarlatti could be sitting on Scopel’s shoulder here for all of the inspired grace that Scopel brings out of the moment.  It’s a gorgeous opener, and the crowd on the recording is more than appreciative.  “Adagio in B minor” (K.540), finds Scopel exploring each cranny of one of Mozart’s more unique compositions with deliberate care.  Ranging in style from passages that border on pop to dramatic changes involving suspensions and diminished sevenths, “Adagio in B minor” is one of Mozart’s most unusual compositions.  It is one of only two pieces he wrote in B minor, and has long been a jumping off point for classical music fans into discussions about philosophy and meaning in music.
“Rondo in A minor” (K. 511) was composed by Mozart in 1787, and is edgy and nervous throughout.  Scopel captures the power of Mozart’s rolling arpeggios seven minutes into the piece, a joyous if conflicted counter to the sadness or grief of the opening and the gorgeous theme that infuses the composition.  Scopel nearly seems to channel Mozart here, as he plays with a love and reverence that are hard to imagine, much less recreate.  “Cartas Celestias (Celestial Maps)”, written by Brazilian composer Jose Antonio Rezende de Almeida Prado, is a violent, neo-classical explosion that occasionally subsides into coherence.  This is a difficult listen, full of dissonance and the crashing, haranguing chords of a pediatric piano student’s temper tantrums.  Scopel plays it perfectly, but it’s still difficult to digest if this style is not your cup of tea.
Robert Schumann’s “Fantasy in C major” (Op. 17) is offered up in complete form, with Scopel giving life to all three movements and their disparate moods.  “Durchaus Fantastisch Und Leidenschaftlich Vorzutragen; Im Legenden-Ton” has a cascading feel, and is highly complex and full of movement.  Schumann’s passion can be felt in every rise and fall, yet Scopel imbues it with a dreamy sensibility that offers a more complex view of Schumann’s vision.  Mäßig. Durchaus energisch” combines elements of doxological hymns and grand music hall pastiche with the majesty of a march.  This is a playful and fun piece with great energy, and Scopel is technically brilliant in the process.  “Langsam Getragen.  Durchweg Leise Zu Halten” is slow and meditative, countering moments of melancholy with uplifting passages and resolutions.  Scopel sets the mood here perfectly, and seems a master at emoting through the piano.
Technical brilliance is a rare, learned skill at the piano, developed through hours of painstaking practice.  Also in rare supply are those artists who take on the piano as an extension of themselves and their emotions, using the instrument to communication in much the same way that facial expressions illuminate the words of every day speech.  Rarer still is the artist who can combine both qualities at once.  Aleyson Scopel does so admirably.  Live In Concert shows the pianist in the most difficult setting to get both right.  On stage, anything can, and invariably will, happen.  Scopel shows that he has the technical skill to recreate perfectly anything he chooses, but also ability to not simply recreate those pieces, but reanimate them.  Live In Concert is sub-par from a recording standpoint.  The sounds levels are too low and may not stand up to the demanding tastes of the classical music elite, but Scopel’s work so exceeds convention that even the stuffiest classical music fan will be drawn in.
Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about Aleyson Scopel at In Concert is available digitally from and iTunes.  If you prefer your music on CD, the album is also available in traditional and digital formats from